words: Dwain Hebda images:courtesy Lassis Inn, Jones Bar-B-Q Diner, Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales, provided courtesy Department of Arkansas Heritage
The sign says “No Dancing.”
It’s one of the first things you notice when you step out of the dazzling lunchtime sunlight into the modest dining room of Lassis Inn in Little Rock. In fact, you see two such signs tacked onto the wall among the light blue booths, some with tables the size of ironing boards.
“Can I getcha?” says a waitress.
Ask for a menu and her face changes knowingly. It’s the sure sign of a first-timer, asking for a menu, and when you get one, you see why. Lassis does catfish, period, does it better than anyplace you’ll ever find, too. All the staff needs to know is which cut – catfish fillets, catfish steaks or buffalo ribs – and how much you want.
The TV’s on, but the sound is down to better hear the doorbell that trips with each customer emerging from the Arkansas midday. Today’s crowd holds a smattering of folks from the neighborhood, a young man dropping in for his pick-up order, a woman dining alone on her lunch break and a quartet of hipsters in faux mechanics’ shirts chatting up a waitress. The mayor isn’t here, but you wouldn’t be surprised if he were.
Lassis Inn, along with Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna and Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales in Lake Village, make up the inaugural class of restaurants inducted into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame earlier this year.
“The idea (for the Hall of Fame) originally came from a member of the governor’s staff,” said Stacy Hurst, director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage and the driving force behind the project. “They had seen an advertisement for the Alabama Barbecue Hall of Fame and they sent it over and said, ‘Hey, this is something Heritage should look at.’ I was immediately intrigued because what we do is we tell the story of Arkansas and there really is a very compelling way to talk about Arkansas and history and culture and community through food.”
Each honoree embodies the taste and people of its particular region and each demonstrates the art of simplicity. Menus are limited, some to a single item, and the spots can charitably be described as possessing rustic charm. But each is a living, breathing, frying, smoking, steaming, baking and satisfying helping of Arkansas culture.
“Food is how people bond,” said Chip Culpepper, a member of the Hall’s selection committee, a local advertising exec and self-described big eater. “We have our family meal where everybody gathers around the table. You have dinner on the grounds at church and Mom is bringing her best dish to share that culture. We all go out to eat together. I think that’s a fundamental part of who we are. It’s in our DNA.”
There’s something about food in the South that inspires a passion unlike any other region of the country. You can have an hour-long argument with your neighbor over the best barbecue joint and still walk away thinking the other guy’s a fool. So, the thought of narrowing down a hall of fame class was understandably daunting, even intimidating.
“It was horrible. Horrible,” said selection committee member Paul Austin, director of the Arkansas Humanities Council and co-host of Chewing the Fat, a podcast about Arkansas food. “The way the process worked, we had to choose from those nominated (by the public) and the nominations were done online. I suspect it will be worse next year because I think there’ll be even more nominations. It was a very difficult task and we made it difficult on ourselves because we didn’t want too many people being inducted every time.”
If there was an obvious winner among the nominations, and that’s a big if, it probably had to be Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna, the humblest of places with the highest of credentials. The family-run restaurant has existed for 150 years, putting it in the running for the oldest African American-owned restaurant in the South.
Owner James H. Jones is the latest link in a chain that runs four generations. James and his wife Betty are at it at six a.m., six days a week serving slow-smoked pork shoulder in white-bread sandwiches or by the pound every day until it’s gone. The consistent excellence of the product is rivaled only by the owner’s work ethic – since 1963, James has only taken one vacation and one trip on an airplane, both coming in 2012 to accept the James Beard Award in the category America’s Classics in New York City.
It’s the Oscars of the culinary world and it’s brought the world to Marianna. James’ guest book boasts visitors from as far away as Yemen, Japan, Paris and New York. Governors have dropped by with their assembly of handlers, as have foodies, bloggers, and media by the score. CBS News came by a couple of years back to film a feature on what they called the best barbecue spot in America.
Everything about Jones Bar-B-Q Diner speaks to the passage of time and the enduring, enabling power of food.
The same can be said of Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales in Lake Village. Rhoda Adams, a relative newcomer, having been in business “only” about forty years, was called by God to bake pies which she sold out of her house, turning the proceeds over to her church. Starting out, she only made the sweet potato variety but she eventually caved into a customer’s request for pecan and a legend was born.
Meanwhile, a relative taught her how to make tamales, something else at which she proved to be a natural. Today, an equal number of people travel here for the tamales as for the pie, some from hundreds of miles away. More often than not, customers get both, provided she hasn’t run out, which given her far-flung reputation in Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and points east, can happen fast.
“That was such a high point (of the Hall of Fame induction),” Chip said. “This is a room full of people who know a lot about food and the biggest reaction was when Miss Rhoda’s name was called. If you’ve been to Miss Rhoda’s, you know it’s a small, very humble place, but man, it’s all about the food and the love and care that she puts into every single thing.”
Food highlights our celebrations and comforts us in our sorrow; your best memories probably involve some kind of meal or a particular dish that reminds of days and loved ones gone by. But there’s something else, said Rex Nelson, a selection committee member, Chewing the Fat co-host and well-known writer, that underscores the importance of preserving these tidbits of Arkansas’s culinary heritage in a suitable hall of fame.
As central as good food is to bonding with family and friends, it’s even more essential for what it does among strangers. Food is one thing that always brings us together.
ARKANSAS HALL OF FAME RESTAURANTS
Jones Bar-B-Q Diner
219 W Louisiana Street
518 E 27th Street
Little Rock, AR
Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales
714 Saint Mary Street
Lake Village, AR
Inaugural Arkansas Food Hall of Fame Inductees
Presented February 28, 2017
Little Rock, Arkansas
Arkansas Food Hall of Fame
Jones Bar-B-Q Diner, Marianna
Lassis Inn, Little Rock
Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales, Lake Village
Bruno’s Little Italy, Little Rock
Craig’s Bar-B-Q, DeVall’s Bluff
Doe’s Eat Place, Little Rock
Feltner’s Whataburger, Russellville
Franke’s Cafeteria, Little Rock
Kream Kastle, Blytheville
McClard’s Bar-B-Q, Hot Springs
Neal’s Café, Springdale
Sim’s Bar-B-Que, Little Rock
Grotto Wood Fired Grill and Wine Cave, Eureka Springs
Proprietor of the Year
Paul Bash, Ed Moore, Louis Petit and Denis Seyer,
Continental Cuisine Partnership, Little Rock
Capi Peck (Trio’s, Little Rock)
Joe St. Columbia (Pasquale’s Hot Tamales, West Helena)
Scott McGehee (Yellow Rocket Concepts, Little Rock)
Cave City Watermelon Festival
The Annual Bean Fest and Great Arkansas Championship Outhouse Races, Mountain View
Gillett Coon Supper
World Championship Duck Gumbo Cookoff, Stuttgart
World Cheese Dip Championship, Little Rock